Sean Strickland will make UFC history when he steps into the octagon on Saturday.
Just a month ago, Strickland was standing across Jared Cannonier in the main event of UFC Vegas 66 to close out 2022, and now he’s set to fight Nassourdine Imavov in the light heavyweight main event of UFC Vegas 67 to open 2023 (up from both man’s usual class of middleweight due to Strickland replacing Kelvin Gastelum on less than a week’s notice). This marks just the second time ever that a fighter has headlined consecutive UFC shows — and no one has done it in as short a span as Strickland.
Tito Ortiz was the first as he defended the light heavyweight title UFC 32 and UFC 33 back when UFC events were far less frequent. There was a three-month gap between Ortiz’s back-to-back headliners as opposed to 28 days for Strickland. The only other fighter to come close to matching this achievement is Deiveson Figueiredo, who headlined consecutive pay-per-views with flyweight title defenses at UFC 255 and UFC 256 to close out 2020, but there were a pair of Fight Night events in between.
Strickland’s willingness to jump on this opportunity shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone given his “punch first, ask questions later” approach to his career, and it could turn out to be a smart move if he can slow down the surging Imavov. Fights against ranked opponents aren’t easy to get when you’re on a losing streak, so Strickland simply stepped up and snagged one.
In other main card action, featherweight veterans Dan Ige and Damon Jackson collide in the penultimate bout of the evening, Punahele Soriano fights Roman Kopylov in a potential middleweight slugfest, Ketlen Vieira looks to cement herself as the No. 1 contender at bantamweight with a win over Raquel Pennington, and bantamweight blue-chipper Umar Nurmagomedov opens the show against Raoni Barcelos.
What: UFC Vegas 67
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Sean Strickland (T11)* vs. Nassourdine Imavov (14)*
All things considered, Sean Strickland could have picked a worse short-notice fight. Nassourdine Imavov has all the makings of a future title challenger at 185 pounds, but he hasn’t established himself as a surefire threat just yet. That could change on Saturday.
Imavov has put together a three-fight win streak on the strength of his crafty striking and a confidence that can’t be taught. You can bet that Strickland will have a lot to say when Imavov meets him in the center of the cage with his hands down, daring Strickland to make the first move. From there, it will be a chess match as Strickland looks to implement his high volume game and Imavov looks to counter.
The poundage difference from the official weigh-ins shouldn’t be much of a factor here, with Strickland coming in at 204 pounds and Imavov at 194 pounds because neither man is likely to implement too many takedowns into their game and their fight night weights probably won’t be too far off. Imavov’s grappling will come into play with clinch exchanges that could leave Strickland neutralized and frustrated.
We can’t discount the short-notice nature of this matchup either. Strickland is a gamer who will work for 25 minutes without issue, but preparing for a tricky opponent like Imavov requires a full camp, not just a consistent cardio routine. Add in the fact that Imavov has a significant edge in quickness and you can see why Strickland will struggle to put up points on the scorecards.
Imavov by decision.
Dan Ige vs. Damon Jackson
Talk about two fighters headed in opposite directions.
Dan Ige has had a rough go of it since a strong run that was capped off by split-decision wins over Edson Barboza and Mirsad Bektic. Beating Barboza resulted in a significant jump up in competition and Ige has struggled, losing three straight and four of his past five. Dropping decisions to the likes of Movsar Evloev, Josh Emmett, Chan Sung Jung, and Calvin Kattar is nothing to be ashamed of, but they’re losses all the same.
On the other side, Jackson is on the hottest stretch of his career, having won four straight fights in his second stint with the UFC. That said, the competition he’s faced isn’t near the level of Ige’s, which is a big reason why I’m leaning towards the Hawaiian to snap his skid.
Aside from the fact that Ige has been tested in fires that are just a tad hotter, I like how his skill set matches up with Jackson’s. Ige has been in plenty of standup fights, but his bread and butter has always been his jiu-jitsu, so he can out-grapple Jackson or at least battle him to a standstill down there. On the feet, Ige’s toughness can carry him in a scrap as he’s never been finished, while Jackson has always had defensive shortcomings.
This is a fun featherweight matchup and I’m glad that Jackson is finally getting a top-20 opponent, but I have Ige coming out on top via second-round TKO.
Punahele Soriano vs. Roman Kopylov
We’ve watched Punahele Soriano grow before our very eyes as he’s reached the point where almost half of his fights have taken place in the UFC. He’s evolved from a raw sprawl-and-brawler to a more defensively responsible fighter. The question is whether he’s shored up his weaknesses enough.
I have my doubts, especially given that Roman Kopylov excels in one of Soriano’s worst areas: body work. As improved as he is, Soriano is still susceptible to body shots, which just so happen to be an effective part of Kopylov’s arsenal. The Russian put this skill to good use against Alessio di Chirico to score his first UFC win.
That will comprise much of his game plan on Saturday as well, which makes sense given how dangerous it is to stand in the pocket and trade shots with Soriano. Kopylov has knockout power too, but he may want to take a more strategic approach to this matchup.
Look for this one to have a couple of near-finish moments before eventually going to the judges, where Kopylov’s body shots will earn him the nod.
Ketlen Vieira (3) vs. Raquel Pennington (6)
Ketlen Vieira survived one clinch-heavy fighter in her last fight, can she do it again?
The would-be No. 1 contender’s split decision win over Holly Holm proved to be one of 2022’s more controversial calls, one that I felt the judges got right following a proper Robbery Review. Still, the fact that Vieira was one round on one card away from taking a loss instead tells you how concerned she should be about Raquel Pennington.
To put it nicely, Pennington is one of the bantamweight division’s most persistent grinders, and much of her success begins with her ability to lock up her opponent, walk them to the fence, and keep them there. It ain’t pretty, but it nets her another check at the pay window, so you have to respect it.
I fully expect Vieira to employ the same strategy against Pennington that she employed against Holm, which is to remain patient and just go for head shots to either finish the fight or win over the judges. This being a three-round fight makes it a little dicey as it’s much easier to steal two rounds than it is three, but on the flipside Vieira might be more willing to go for broke with only 15 minutes to work through.
This pick is as much of a hope as it is a judgment call because Amanda Nunes is in dire need of a fresh challenger and Vieira fits the bill (apologies to everyone clamoring for that Nunes-Pennington rematch), so put me down for Vieira by decision.
Umar Nurmagomedov (13) vs. Raoni Barcelos
Umar Nurmagomedov is an astronomical favorite in this one, hovering around -1000 depending on where you look, which seems incredibly disrespectful given that he’s going up against Raoni Barcelos, a top-25 fighter in one of MMA’s deepest divisions.
But that’s a product of the Nurmagomedov mystique, not to mention the fact that he has delivered with a trio of impressive victories to begin his UFC career. True to his name, Nurmagomedov is a monster wrestler who just so happens to be a creative striker as well. He’s supremely well-rounded and feels like a top 10 fighter if we’re just going off of the eye test.
That said, it’s still surprising to me that Barcelos is such an underdog, given that he’s an oustanding grappler who loves to mix it up on the feet. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t finished a fight in a few years, but the oddsmakers are definitely overlooking Barcelos’ chances of handing Nurmagomedov his first loss.
Nurmagomedov’s athleticism will be factor as he’s nine years Barcelos’ junior and still hasn’t reached his physical prime. That’s a scary thought given how dominant he’s been already. If he doesn’t outwork Barcelos on the feet, he still has that wrestling in his back pocket to throw Barcelos off of his game.
It’s about to be 16-0 for Nurmagomedov after he takes a convincing judges’ decision.